Articles > Maccabi Tel Aviv takes on the NBA
By Rabbi Mitch Smith
With DisneyWorld – the happiest place on earth - just out of view, and something called the Holy Land Experience a few miles down Interstate 4, and a sukkah outside the T.D. Waterhouse Arena courtesy of the local community, Maccabi Tel Aviv came to Orlando with high hopes. Having beaten the Toronto Raptors some days earlier in NBA exhibition play by a two-point margin (105-103), Israel's perennial champs were hoping to add another notch on their belts. The Magic were hoping to do what Toronto did not.
Grant Hill acknowledged in the locker room before the game that he didn't know much about Maccabi, didn't know that in the past two years two of their best players have gone to the NBA (the Spurs' Beno Udrih in 2004, and the Pacers' Sarunas Jasikevicius this season) but he knew that they had beat Toronto.
"No matter whether it's the original Dream Team, or Maccabi, or Edgewater High School, we've got to come out and play hard and expect to win," said Hill, whose only first hand knowledge of the Israeli club was some game tape that the team had watched earlier in the day. "If we're not careful and we don't play well, they can beat us."
Fresh off the Toronto win – Maccabi's first victory over an NBA team on U.S. soil (they had previously made visits to the Heat, the Lakers and the Sixers for similar exhibition games) – and in front of a crowd that seemed to have more Maccabi supporters than Magic fans, the Israeli club got off to an early lead and were up 20-10 midway into the first quarter, with all fives starters on the scoreboard.
It was a homecoming of sorts for two members of the Maccabi squad. Forward Anthony Parker (no, not Tony), who went to the Nets in the first round of the 1997 draft, was later traded to the Magic, where he played 19 games in 1999 before moving on to the CBA and Europe. Magic 3-point sharpshooter Pat Garrity, the only remaining member of that year's squad, remembered his one-time teammate Parker, as well as Maccabi's Maceo Baston ("I played against him in college when I was at Notre Dame and he was at Michigan").
Maccabi veteran Derrick Sharp (10 years with Maccabi, 12 years in Israel) a native of Orlando, where his mother still lives, played his college ball down the road at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
For a while, the Magic's die hard fans and season ticket holders (the house was only 2/3 full - attendance: 12,514 - and a good percentage were there only to cheer on Maccabi) did not seem to have much to cheer about themselves – especially when Grant Hill re-injured an abdominal strain in the first play of the game (Trooper that he is, Hill went on to score 10 quick points before leaving the game with 3 minutes left in the first quarter.)
But seasoned NBA veteran Bo Outlaw came in and sparked the Magic defense, forcing Maccabi turnovers and missed shots, and the quarter ended with Maccabi down a point (28-29).
In the second quarter, Maccabi tended to rely on its outside shooting, but failed to connect, plummeting from 61% field goal shooting in the first quarter to 33% in the second, falling behind 45-51 to finish out the half.
Maccabi supporters tried to rally their team on with chants of "Mac-ca-bi! Mac-ca-bi!" and the Israeli team took the lead back – briefly – in the 3rd quarter 57-56 off a 3-point shot by Derrick Sharp. But the Magic answered with a two-pointer, and the Bo Outlaw blocked a jumper by Maccabi Center Nikola Vujcic, and from that point on, as Maccabi's inside defense broke down, Orlando surged ahead, eventually winning the game 93-79.
Neither the win against Toronto, nor the loss to the Magic, were all that crucial to Sharp, who told reporters, "These are really just practice games for us. The win against the Raptors was good for our morale, but we're really concerned with getting ready for EuroLeague play." (Maccabi clinched the European title both in 2004 and in 2005). For the Croatian born Vujcic, who spent the summer playing for his country's national team together with Magic reserve player Mario Kasun, and who has gone up against his share of the NBA's European players in the past, the loss was also not of great matter. "We are used to being the winning team – that's how we went into the game against Toronto, and that's how we came here tonight. Playing at this level is going to help us prepare for the European League."
"They were stronger than the players we are used to," said back-up forward Yaniv Green. "I'm sure that this trip will help us down the road facing up against more aggressive players that we will meet in EuroLeague play-offs."
Still, for some members of Maccabi this trip was not just about getting ready for the coming season. "I grew up watching the NBA on TV, and to actually be here and playing against NBA teams is a dream come true," said reserve guard Assaf Dotan. "For me this isn't just another game, it really raises your motivation. Playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, you aren't only representing your club, you feel like you are representing your country. It really gives you a feeling of pride." (Editor's note: When Maccabi won its first European Cup championship in 1977, team captain and former University of Illinois star Tal Brody told the press, "We (i.e. Israel) are on the map – and not just in basketball).
When it was all over but the plane ride home, Coach Brian Hill of the Magic was highly complimentary of the club that some writers called the best basketball team not in the NBA.
"They're an excellent team – well coached, athletic, and typical of European clubs, they have a lot of players who are fundamentally sound. I told Coach (Pini) Gershon that I really like the way they play. They play with a lot of confidence and believe in their ability to play with any team, as befits a team that won the European championship the last two years. We obviously wanted the win; there was a pride factor for them in already having beaten one NBA team, and we didn't want to let that happen again."
Hill also gave high marks to Bo Outlaw. "Bo's an energy guy. Bo's a defender. Bo's a rebounder. Bo knows how to play. This (Maccabi) is a very difficult type of team to play against, big guys that play out on the perimeter, quick guards that can really shoot the ball from the perimeter, and you have to have really quick defensive players to counter all the things that they try and do to get their guys open. Bo was excellent playing all the quick screen and roll situations, weak-side help, and he did a very good job."
"They did a good job of passing the ball and finding the open man," added Magic guard Steve Francis, whose 20 points tied Maccabi's Parker as game high scorer. "They were hot. Their guard play was great, and they were knocking down 3's. We managed to step it up on defense and shut them down."
Pat Garrity, too, spoke highly of the contest. "I think it's great for the NBA, and for the sport, to see international players outside of the NBA. We've seen a little of this with the Olympics and the World Championship. I think it's good to be exposed to other professional teams, and Maccabi is one of the best."
The evening's final word, however, went to the journalists. In the press room, one of the Magic beat writers quipped, "Well, the Magic won – no trip to the Wailing Wall for them!" to which his colleague answered, "If they would have lost, would David Stern have dictated the wearing of yarmulkes as part of the new NBA dress code?"
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